6 Sensory Sleep Strategies: Better Bedtimes For Your Child

Written by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Dr Lucy Russell Clinical Psychologist Founder of They Are The Future
Author: Dr Lucy Russell, Clinical Psychologist

A good night’s sleep is vital to your child’s ability to thrive. 

Did you know… Sleep influences mood, performance at school, and overall well-being? 

Yet, achieving restful sleep isn’t always straightforward. Bedtime challenges are common, particularly for children grappling with sensory processing difficulties. 

In this article, I will delve into strategies that can ease these bedtime challenges, focusing on sensory sleep strategies designed to support children’s unique needs. I’ll be drawing from my 20 years of experience as a child psychologist specializing in autism.

little girl in pyjamas being kissed by her mother

What Are Sensory Sleep Strategies?

Sensory sleep strategies are tailored approaches designed to meet the unique sensory needs of each child, particularly those with sensory processing disorders.

These strategies aim to create a sensory-friendly environment that promotes sleep improvement by addressing individual sensory needs, such as sensory sensitivities.

It’s important to note that the scientific evidence supporting some of these strategies is mixed.

In my view though, some of the variability in effectiveness is because of the diverse sensory profiles among children. What significantly benefits one child’s sleep patterns might not have the same impact on another, making it essential to adopt a trial-and-error approach.

For instance, my personal bedtime routine includes using a hot water bottle year-round, keeping the window open for cool air, and playing white noise.

This combination addresses my sensory system in a way that I find soothing.

For me, the warmth and weight of the hot water bottle with the coolness of the air and the consistent sound of white noise is the perfect combination. However, this exact setup might feel overwhelming or stifling to someone else, highlighting the need for personalization in sensory strategies.

Incorporating strategies for sensory integration into your child’s bedtime routine can help their central nervous system to wind down. This means better quantity and quality of sleep, balanced circadian rhythms and contributing to higher overall well-being.

Let’s look at six different sensory sleep strategies for you to consider.

StrategyDescriptionKey Elements
Deep Pressure TouchApplying firm, gentle pressure to the body to soothe the nervous system and promote relaxation.Hand hugs, squeezes, weighted blankets
Weighted BlanketUsing weighted blankets to provide a sense of security and comfort through deep pressure touch.Choosing the right weight, ensuring safety
Swinging and RockingUtilizing gentle, rhythmic movements to calm the nervous system and prepare the body for sleep.Cuddle swings, rocking chairs, hammock swings
Soothing Sounds for SleepIncorporating ambient sounds like white or brown noise to create a calming auditory environment.White noise machines, sound apps, distinguishing between white and brown noise
Calming Scents for SleepUsing specific essential oils known for their calming properties to enhance sleep quality.Lavender and chamomile oils, safe scent diffusion, avoiding direct skin contact
Temperature RegulationMaintaining an ideal temperature in the sleep environment for optimal comfort and relaxation.Warm baths before bedtime, keeping the bedroom cool, understanding the impact of body cooling

Sensory Sleep Strategy 1: Deep Pressure Touch

Deep pressure touch is a calming technique that can enhance sleep quality for children who experience sensory overstimulation.

It involves applying firm, gentle pressure to the body, which can help soothe the nervous system and make it easier for a child to relax. Unlike light touch, which some children find difficult to process, deep pressure can be a great way to signal to the body that it’s time to wind down.

Incorporating deep pressure touch into the bedtime routine can be done through “hand hugs” or squeezes, where gentle but firm pressure is applied to your child’s hands, arms, or legs.

There are also massage machines, such as neck massagers, which you could try for your child.

Any form of deep pressure usually helps with sensory calming.

Human touch also provides a reassuring presence that can help your child transition more smoothly into sleep, especially after a day filled with sensory challenges.

9 year old boy sleeping in a cozy blue bed with twinkly night lights behind him.

Sensory Sleep Strategy 2: Weighted Blanket

Weighted blankets are a sensory tool that use the principles of pressure therapy to enhance a feeling of calm and safety and improve sleep. These heavy quilts act like a deep full-body hug.

One study in adults found that weighted blankets promote the release of serotonin and melatonin, crucial for relaxation and sleep, while also stimulating the production of oxytocin, the ‘feel-good’ hormone associated with bonding and relaxation.

When choosing a weighted blanket, you need to consider your child’s body weight. A general guideline is to select a blanket that is approximately 10% of your child’s weight, ensuring the pressure is effective without being overwhelming.

This balance is crucial for providing the sensory input needed whilst still allowing your child to move comfortably.

In my personal and professional experience as a child psychologist, the right heavy blanket can be a game-changer in helping a child with sensory sensitivities to have a restful night’s sleep.

Sensory Sleep Strategy 3: Swinging and Rocking

Gentle swinging and rhythmic rocking provide calming motion that soothe your child’s nervous system at the end of the day, facilitating better sleep.

This type of movement gives both vestibular and proprioceptive input, essential for sensory regulation.

The vestibular system responds to the motion of swinging or rocking, stimulating your child’s sense of balance and spatial orientation.

Proprioceptive input helps the body understand where it is in space, which contributes to overall calmness.

Incorporating these sensory activities before bed can be done through the use of a cuddle swing, hammock swing, or even a rocking chair. Gently bouncing on an exercise ball can also provide similar benefits.

Engaging in these activities at a consistent time each evening will signal to your child’s body that it’s time to wind down.

Overall I can highly recommend rocking and swinging as effective strategies for achieving a state of relaxation conducive to sleep.

a teen boy relaxing on his bed

Sensory Sleep Strategy 4: Soothing Sounds for Sleep

Ambient sounds, particularly white and brown noise, serve as effective sleep aids by masking disruptive environmental noises with soothing, consistent soundscapes.

A study conducted in adults found that white noise significantly improved sleep for people in high-noise environments (urban areas). 

White noise encompasses a wide range of frequencies at equal intensity, creating a uniform sound that can help drown out sudden changes in background noise, leading to fewer disruptions. 

Brown noise, on the other hand, includes lower frequencies, producing a deep, rumbling sound akin to a strong wind or a distant thunderstorm. Many children find this calming and easier to sleep to than white noise.

Incorporating your child’s choice of sounds into a bedtime routine can be done using a white noise machine, sound machine apps, or even the Audible app for stories with consistent, gentle background noise.

My son loves listening to stories on audible to help him drift off to sleep.

The choice between white and brown noise depends which sound spectrum is more soothing for your child, so it’s worth experimenting.

Sensory Sleep Strategy 5: Calming Scents for Sleep

For some children the olfactory senses (smell) can really help in relaxation and sleep. 

There’s some evidence that certain scents can enhance sleep quality.

One study explored the impact of essential oil aroma, specifically lavender, on electrical activity in the brain during sleep. The scientists found that exposure to lavender aroma during sleep increased delta wave activity in slow-wave sleep (SWS), related to improved sleep quality. 

Lavender and chamomile oils are among the most well-known for their calming properties. These essential oils can help soothe the mind and prepare the body for sleep, making them excellent additions to your child’s bedtime routine.

Why not experiment with their preferred scents including combinations?

When introducing calming scents into your child’s sleep environment, do think about safety.

Essential oils should be used in a diffuser to avoid direct skin contact, and the room should be well-ventilated. The diffuser should be placed out of reach of children and used according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Sensory Sleep Strategy 6: Temperature Regulation for Sleep

Temperature regulation directly impacts the body’s ability to fall asleep. 

Your child’s room temperature significantly influences sleep quality by affecting sleep stages such as REM and slow wave sleep.

Both excessively high and low ambient temperatures can disrupt sleep. I recommend you keep your child’s bedroom between 15.5-19.5 degrees Celsius (60-67 degrees Fahrenheit).

Managing the temperature in your child’s sleep environment can be particularly beneficial for children with sensory challenges, giving them the best chance a restful night’s sleep.

Incorporating a warm bath or shower into the daily routine before bedtime can help with temperature regulation ready for sleep. It raises the body’s temperature. The subsequent natural cooldown period helps signal to the body that it’s time for sleep.

young child sleeping soundly in their bed

A Sensory-Friendly Environment

Creating a sensory-friendly bedroom is so important to a good night’s sleep, especially for children with sensory struggles.

A quiet, ordered, and clutter-free environment minimizes distractions, helping to calm the mind before bed.

Soft lighting can support the body’s circadian rhythm, signaling that it’s time for sleep without the harshness of bright lights.

To create a sensory-friendly sleep space, you should also consider other elements like comfortable bedtime wear that feels soothing against the skin, and limiting screen time to reduce sensory input before bed.

Generally, experiment and adapt until you find a sensory-friendly bedtime routine that caters to your child’s specific sensory needs. 

Sensory-friendly bedtime routines might include reading a favourite book in a softly lit room, using a sensory toy that provides comforting tactile feedback, or listening to gentle, soothing music that helps your child wind down.

The key is to engage in predictable, calming activities that provide sensory support without overstimulation.

You want to signal to your child’s body and mind that it’s time to prepare for sleep. 

a child's calming bedroom in cream and white

Sensory Sleep Strategies for Better Bedtimes: Summary

Figuring out sleep issues in sensory kids requires a blend of sensory sleep strategies tailored to their unique needs.

From soothing deep pressure touch to the serene ambiance created by soothing sounds, you have a variety of options for better bedtimes. Temperature regulation and calming scents can further contribute to creating an optimal sleep environment.

Experiment with these strategies to discover what ensures enough sleep for your child. Make sure you give each strategy at least a couple of weeks before deciding whether it works.

Once you find the right combination it will enhance your child’s sleep, wellbeing and everyday life. It’s not an exaggeration to say that for some families it can be life changing.

Good luck!

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Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years.

In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children. Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.

Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.

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